PONCA CITY, Okla. (KFOR) – A Ponca City Public Schools mom is infuriated after visiting Washington Pre-K this week and being shown a “closet” where her son was kept after allegedly misbehaving.
News 4 spoke with Erika Buerger on Monday. She said she learned last week about her 4-year-old son reportedly acting up in class and his teacher putting him in what she calls a hallway closet.
“You are creating mass murderers. You’re creating serial killers like this. This creates criminals. You know, you are traumatizing a child. It just makes them act out,” stated Buerger.
News 4 requested a picture of the room where Buerger’s son was placed as well as the measurements of the room.
On Monday, Ponca City Public Schools Director of Public Information/Webmaster, Kristi Hayes told KFOR she’d snap a picture on Tuesday. That picture has yet to be provided.
“We will not be supplying a photo of the room at this time,” Hayes said Thursday afternoon.
Buerger, however, was allowed take a look at the room on Tuesday and sent News 4 a video.
In the video, Buerger is accompanied by the Ponca City Public Schools Superintendent, Adam Leaming as well as the Washington Pre-K Principal, Tina Fisher.
The video starts off by Leaming opening the door to what the district calls a “recovery room.”
“We keep our staff in there with them. There’s no light switches or anything they can peel off the walls or hurt themselves with. We will stay in the room with them unless they are spitting, biting, or kicking. If they become too aggressive, I ask the staff to wait out [in the hallway] to supervise,” Leaming explained to Buerger.
The room’s walls are padded while the wooden door is not. Leaming stated the room has its own ventilation system and a tiny window where staff can look into the room and check on the student.
“I’m really baffled they think that is okay to shove a four-year-old in a padded closet. You know, the padded room in the jail is way bigger than a closet and that’s for criminals. My son is not a criminal. He’s a four year old little boy,” said Buerger. “He’s a fantastic little boy. Like, I mean, I’m sure everybody’s real biased to their children, but, like, he never ceases to amaze me. He’s very smart. He’s very well educated. He loves learning. I hope they didn’t ruin it for him. I hope they didn’t. You know, I don’t want him to think it’s okay to go to school and be shoved in a closet.”
The cell phone video goes on to show Buerger’s conversation with Leaming. She explains how neither she or the father were notified by the school about their son being put in the small room.
“I’m confused because I’ve been told he’s been picked up twice,” said Leaming.
Buerger told KFOR her son has reportedly been put in the small room once before, but neither she or the father were notified of that time either.
“We have to protect the safety of the other students,” said Leaming.
Buerger told Leaming she’d prefer to be called in a situation where her son is misbehaving rather than him being secluded in a small room.
Buerger told KFOR her son’s teacher told his father over text he was put in the room because he jumped off a stage and disrupted class instruction. She said violent behavior has never been brought to her or his father’s attention.
Leaming said as the school waits for a parent to pick up the student, they have to protect other students and staff, so putting him a small room is a must.
“He’s not going to hurt any other student,” said Buerger.
“Ma’am,” responded Leaming.
“Yeah, no. We don’t, ‘Ma’am,'” said Buerger.
On Monday, Hayes told KFOR the Ponca City Board of Education has a seclusion policy in place.
“Students are only placed in the recovery room, which meets all requirements set forth by the Oklahoma State Department of Education, if aggression/violence is being directed toward staff or another person. The purpose of this practice for our four-year-olds is to provide a safe space for students to become calm. The room (not a closet) is used for safety matters only, not punishment or discipline. Occasionally, parents are invited to the school as a means to calm the students. The parents of the student in question were invited to the school last Wednesday. Safety will always be a top priority for ALL students attending Ponca City Public Schools,” stated Hayes.
According to Oklahoma State Department of Education rules, seclusion rooms are permitted.
Seclusion is to never be used for the purposes of discipline, punishment, forcing compliance, or as a convenience to staff. Seclusion may only be used under emergency circumstances, according to OSDE rules.
A student may be placed in seclusion only if:
- The student’s actions pose an imminent danger of serious physical harm to the student or other individuals, and not merely a threat to property;
- Positive behavior intervention strategies and less restrictive measures appropriate to the behavior exhibited by the student are currently being implemented, but have not effectively de-escalated the threat of danger or harm;
- School personnel are present who have completed appropriate training that addresses conflict deescalation, the crisis cycle and associated interventions, appropriate use of seclusion rooms, and possible effects of seclusion; and
- The seclusion only lasts as long as necessary to resolve the threat of danger or harm.
If a student is placed in seclusion during an emergency situation that meets the criteria above, the following precautions must be exercised throughout the time the student is in seclusion:
- The student must be continuously monitored visually and aurally by an appropriately trained school employee;
- The student must be allowed to go to the restroom upon request;
- The student must be permitted to drink water upon request; and
- Immediate action must be taken if the student displays any signs of medical distress.
A room or area where a student is placed in seclusion must meet the following criteria:
- Continuous visual and aural monitoring of a secluded student is possible;
- There must be adequate space for the student to sit or lie down;
- There must be adequate lighting;
- The room must be equipped with heating, cooling, and ventilation systems comparable to such systems in the rest of the building where the seclusion room or area is located;
- The room or area used for seclusion must be free of any objects that pose a potential risk of harm to a student with disabilities or a student in distress; and
- If equipped with a door that locks, the lock must automatically disengage in case of an emergency such as a fire or severe weather.
How long a student stays in the small room is up to the discretion of the school.
“There is no set specific time in the recovery room as no two students are alike,” said Hayes.
“That is not a safe room,” stated Buerger.
“Okay, well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” responded Leaming. “We have an obligation to keep our students safe.”
“That is not keeping them safe. That is traumatizing them and turning them into something that they don’t need to be,” added Buerger.
“I understand as a parent you have that right and choice and I wish you all the best,” said Leaming.
“All the best is going to come because you’re not going to treat my son like a criminal,” said Buerger.
“We don’t want to. He’s a little boy that deserves a good start,” stated Leaming.
The video ends seconds after that.
Halfway through the video, Buerger told Leaming the Department of Human Services does not regulate “seclusion rooms.” Buerger previously told KFOR Leaming said the room was regulated under DHS.
“Oklahoma Human Services does not license pre-K programs operated at public schools during typical school hours,” stated DHS External Communications and Media Relations Administrator, Casey White.
News 4 sent DHS a copy of the video to which White reiterated her previous statement.
News 4 followed up with Hayes about an updated statement in response to the cell phone video, but she declined within 24 hours of stating she’d have another statement to us by Wednesday.
“I am looking for an attorney,” stated Buerger. “This is absurd. And yes, I’m coming for everything. I’m coming for everything for my child and for everybody else’s child as well.”
There was legislation presented in the Capitol in 2016 and 2017 banning seclusion rooms, but the bills failed to progress.
Since then, another bill as such has not been presented.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, every district is required to report no later than June 30 of every year each incident of seclusion.
News 4 has requested those reports through the Oklahoma State Department of Education. We’ve also reached out to OSDE for statements on Monday and Thursday regarding Buerger’s concerns and seclusion rooms, but never heard back.